Morocco’s Recognition of US Independence: Highly Treasured ‘First’ in Moroccan-American Relations

Today, Morocco is celebrating the nineteenth anniversary of the accession of King Mohamed VI to the throne. Long ago, in the eighteenth century, one of his ancestors, Sultan Mohamed III led Morocco into an era of openness with respect to other nations of the world that exists to this day, especially manifest in the longstanding relationship between Morocco and the United States.

Today, Morocco is celebrating the nineteenth anniversary of the accession of King Mohamed VI to the throne. Long ago, in the eighteenth century, one of his ancestors, Sultan Mohamed III led Morocco into an era of openness with respect to other nations of the world that exists to this day, especially manifest in the longstanding relationship between Morocco and the United States.

The reign of Sultan Sidi Mohamed III of Morocco from 1757 to 1790 signified three major indications of considerable change in the orientation of Moroccan foreign policy with respect to politics and trade with other nations.

The first was the establishment of Morocco’s capital in Mogador, now Essaouira, on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. While previously the seat of Morocco’s capital had been in several inland cities such as Fes and Marrakech, the move to a newly designed capital on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean sent an important signal of openness and potentially beneficial trade exchanges with countries overseas.

Second, Modagor’s architecture was itself new and unprecedented. In a shift away from traditional or conventional Moroccan architecture, the city looked more European in style and was in fact considered modern by that era’s standards.

Third, the Sultanate accorded more importance to maritime trade, and focused on tolerance and diversity to encourage more and mutually beneficial trade relations with European and other maritime powers instead of relying on domestic tax collection and inland trade with sub-Saharan Africa, namely through the caravan trade with Timbuktu, to raise revenues.

Sultan Sidi Mohamed III championed Morocco’s new policy of reaching out to other nations. He sought to establish peaceful and friendly relations with the Christian powers and at the same time to implement state-controlled maritime trade to provide a major regular source of revenue for the economy of Morocco.

The Sultan took a number of measures to further this policy. Chief among them was his announcement on December 20, 1777, that he wished to establish friendly relations with the newly independent United States of America. In a practical move, the Sultan issued a declaration stating that all ships sailing under the American flag were to be allowed freely into Moroccan ports. He ordered the Moroccan maritime authorities to let in American ships “to take refreshment” and enjoy the same privileges as those offered to the crews of ships belonging to nations with which Morocco had treaties.

The implication of such a wise move by the Moroccan Sultan was the recognition of the newly independent American Republic, putting it on the same footing as the other maritime powers with which Morocco had treaties of peace and trade. Thus, in 1777, Morocco became the first nation officially to recognize the independence of the United States.

Of course given the distance between the countries and the lack of high speed global communication systems, it took a while for the news to reach the United States government and for the Sultan’s intent to become clear. Undaunted, the Sultan reissued his declaration announcing the opening of Moroccan ports to American vessels again two months later on February 20, 1778. The declaration was communicated to all foreign consuls and merchants in all of Morocco’s busiest ports, i.e., Tangier, Sale, and Mogador.

Benjamin Franklin, who was, at the time, the American Commissioner in Paris, caught wind of the Sultan’s intent of seeking friendly relations with the United States through a letter from d’Audibert Caille. A French merchant in Morocco, Caille had been appointed by the Sultan to serve as consul for all non-diplomatically represented countries in the kingdom.

When Benjamin Franklin was convinced that the message transmitted to him represented an official communique from the Sultan, he forwarded it to the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the U.S. By that time, Franklin had reportedly received two letters from Caille who offered to serve as “our minister with the Emperor” and who wrote, “His Imperial Majesty wondered why we had never sent [a letter] to thank him for being the first power on this side of the Atlantic that had acknowledged our independence and opened his ports to us.”

The official response to the Sultan’s offer came from Samuel Huntington, the Speaker of Congress, in a letter to Commissioner Benjamin Franklin in Paris. Huntington’s letter stated, “In the name of Congress and in terms most respectful to the Emperor that we entertain a sincere disposition to cultivate the most perfect friendship with him, and are desirous to enter into a treaty of commerce with him; and that we shall embrace a favorable opportunity to announce our wishes ….”

A month later, in December 1780, the American government sent an official response to the Moroccan offer.

“We the Congress of the 13 United States of North America, have been informed  of your Majesty’s favorable regard to the interests of the people we represent, which has been communicated by Monsieur Etienne d’Audibert Caille of Sale, Consul of Foreign nations unrepresented in your Majesty’s states. We assure you of our earnest desire to cultivate a sincere and firm peace and friendship with your Majesty and to make it lasting to all posterity. Should any of the subjects of our states come within the ports of your Majesty’s territories, we flatter ourselves they will receive the benefit of your protection and benevolence. You may assure yourself of every protection and assistance to your subjects from the people of these states whenever and wherever they may have it in their power. We pray your Majesty may enjoy long life and uninterrupted prosperity.”

Neither of the two nations meanwhile was enjoying easy or smooth transitions; the new U.S. Republic was absorbed in its war with Great Britain, and Morocco faced the challenge of drought and securing more stable relations with both Spain and Britain. Therefore, the matter of developing friendly relations necessarily had to be put on hold.

To get America’s attention and make it clear that Morocco’s offer was not to be taken for granted, Morocco captured an American merchant ship, the Betsey, on October 11, 1784, and took it and its crew and cargo to the port of Tangier. The Americans understood the Sultan’s move and decided it was high time they negotiated a peace and friendship treaty with Morocco.

In 1785, preparations for a treaty with Morocco were underway, and Morocco released the Betsey unharmed along with its crew and cargo.

The U.S. government appointed Thomas Barclay, the American Consul in Paris, to negotiate the treaty with Morocco. The treaty, known as the Treaty of Marrakech or the Treaty of Peace and Amity, opened new horizons of mutually beneficial diplomatic and trade cooperation between the Moroccan and American nations. The treaty, sealed by the Sultan, was delivered to Barclay to transmit to American Commissioners Thomas Jefferson, in Paris, and John Adams, in London, who in turn signed it as representatives of the American government.

The U.S. Congress ratified the treaty in 1778. In 1789, President George Washington wrote a letter of appreciation to his “Great and Magnanimous Friend” Sultan Mohamed III.

“Within our territories, there are no mines of either gold or of silver, and this young nation, just recovering from the waste and desolation of a long war, has not, as yet, had time to acquire riches by agriculture and commerce. But our soil is bountiful, and our people industrious, and we have reason to flatter ourselves that we shall gradually become useful to our friends…. It gives me pleasure to have this opportunity of assuring your majesty that I shall not cease to promote every measure that may conduce to the friendship and harmony which so happily subsist between your empire and them (American territories)…. May the Almighty bless your Majesty with his constant guidance and protection.”

Letter of appreciation from George Washington to Mohamed ben Abdallah following the signature of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship signed in Marrakech in 1787.

The Treaty of Marrakech remains in effect to this very day and is considered to be the longest, unbroken friendship treaty in the history of both Morocco and the United States.